WASHINGTON -- America's war on terrorism ought to be linked inextricably to the war on drugs. It is not. That unfortunate failure, making it more difficult to defeat either scourge, is reflected in two anomalies.
• George W. Bush, omnipresent and eloquent in exhorting his fellow citizens to combat terror, since Sept. 11 has mentioned narcotics hardly at all. Not once in his daily rhetoric over those three months has the president used the phrase "narco-terrorism."
• The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), widely considered to have the best U.S. intelligence operations, has no seat at the inter-agency table in fighting terrorism. It never did, and the attacks of Sept. 11 did not change anything.
These facts of life are the background to last Tuesday's unprecedented narco- terrorism symposium convened by the DEA's aggressive new administrator, former Rep. Asa Hutchinson, and held at the DEA headquarters in Arlington, Va. Criticism was restrained and indirect, but the consensus was clear that drug-fighting must be part of the anti-terror strategy.
The DEA has always appreciated the nexus between terror and narcotics, but not the State Department or CIA. Accordingly, the U.S. government for years turned a blind eye to the fact that Colombia's FARC guerrillas from the start have been financed by illegal narcotics. The Taliban, which supported Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda, has been financed by the opium trade to Europe. While U.S. policymakers still talk at length about state-sponsored terrorism, support now is more likely to come from the poppy seed than a government sanctuary.
Raphael Perl, narco-terrorism expert for the Congressional Research Service, told last week's symposium that "income from the drug trade has become increasingly important to terrorist organizations." He added: "State-sponsors are increasingly difficult to find. What world leader in his right mind will risk global sanctions by openly sponsoring al Qaeda or funding it?" Steven Casteel, DEA chief of intelligence, agreed: "State-sponsored terrorism is diminishing. These organizations are looking for funding, and drugs bring one thing: quick return on their investment."
Narcotics provide more than a way to finance terrorism, in the DEA's view. Al Qaeda expands ABC -- atomic, biological and chemical -- to ABCD, with drugs added, according to Casteel. "Drugs are a weapon of mass destruction that can be used against Western societies and help bring them down," he said.
On Sept. 7 this year, DEA agents seized 53 kilos of Afghan heroin distributed by Colombians. "I would argue," said Casteel, "that we've been under attack in this country for a long time, and it didn't start on Sept. 11." Considering DEA's experience, it would seem natural that its representatives would immediately be put on the high command of the new war against terrorism. They were not, and still have not.
Larry Johnson, a former CIA official who was a high-ranking State Department counter-terrorism expert during the first Bush administration, told the symposium: "I can say, hands down, that the best intelligence we have on the ground overseas is DEA and yet, after all of the time that I've been involved with counter-terrorism, not once have I seen a DEA body sitting at the table, at the CSG (Counter-terrorism and Security Group) meetings which go on at the White House, where you're talking about combating terrorism." Nor are they there today.
No wonder the president never uses the words narco-terrorism. What is lost by this silence is the leverage of the presidential bully pulpit to fight drugs. Last week's DEA symposium was called "Target America: Traffickers, Terrorists and Your Kids." The "kids" part was discussed by Stephen Pasierb of the Partnership for a Drug-Free America. He presented polling data showing a rare conjunction between generations: a mutual inclination by parents and children to believe that illegal drugs finance terrorism.
That opportunity can be exploited by the government's massive megaphone, especially the presidential bully pulpit. "The understanding of this link (between narcotics and terrorism) is essential," said Pasierb, "and that's what our leaders can do. Leadership in this nation can help our people understand." The wonder is that the blase attitude toward narcotics in high places that marked the Clinton administration has not totally disappeared under President Bush.